Abstract: Review of the function of a telephone helpline in the treatment of outpatients with rheumatoid arthritis.

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Objectives: To examine the role, acceptability, and cost effectiveness of a telephone helpline organised and run by specialist nurses in a district general hospital outpatient rheumatology department.

Material and methods: Patients accessed the telephone helpline by leaving a taped message on an answer phone with a 24 hour response time. Assessment included an audit of the nature and outcome of helpline calls, patient satisfaction with the helpline, and a health economic analysis of the helpline operation. A postal questionnaire was used to assess patient satisfaction; this was sent to the 87 patients who called the helpline during one month, and overall satisfaction with the helpline was assessed. The nature and outcome of all calls was analysed retrospectively using a helpline record book for February and October of one year and February of the following year. From the results of the retrospective analysis and an estimate of the number of general practitioner consultations avoided by provision of the helpline, the cost effectiveness of the helpline was calculated.

Results: Of those returning questionnaires, 61/63 (97%) were satisfied with the response time, 63/63 (100%) with the courtesy, and 60/63 (95%) felt that their questions were answered directly and to their satisfaction in 62 (98%) of cases. Had the helpline not been available, 38/63 (60%) patients would have made an appointment with their GP. When these figures were extrapolated to an annual estimation, a basic cost analysis showed that the helpline produced a cost saving to the NHS, largely as a result of GP consultations avoided.

Conclusion: Clinical advice and support can be provided by a rheumatology helpline set up as an adjunct to a standard outpatient service. The results of a postal questionnaire suggested more than 95% satisfaction with all aspects of the helpline service and that 99% of callers would call the helpline again. The provision of the helpline service contributes to the quality of care provided by an outpatient department and provides benefit to the NHS.

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